With the drama in Greece it must have been a challenge for David Cameron to interest his fellow EU heads of Government in the UK’s proposals for a renegotiation of our EU membership. Indeed the 15 minute bilateral that Mr Cameron spent at the European Council in Brussels this week with Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, must have felt surreal. It’s purpose was to seek the support of Greece for a change in the terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU – something that can hardly have been at the forefront of Mr Tsipras’ mind.
It can’t have helped that Mr Cameron did not have anything very interesting to tell them. He chose to avoid a “shopping list” of demands at this stage instead preferring generalities.
On the other hand as Mark Wallace reflected yesterday even if Mr Cameron had secured their full attention trying to win their agreement – about anything – is tortuous.
What we did learn this morning, via a leaked memo, was that Mr Cameron has offered the prize to the EU that if they allow him to claim a negotiating victory that he believes he can win the ensuing referendum and he gave an indication of his planned message for that campaign:
“He believes that people will ultimately vote for the status quo if the alternatives can be made to appear risky.”
It is odd for the Prime Minister to be presenting the matter in this way to his fellow EU leaders – even if the analysis is politically plausible. What the EU leaders need to persuaded of is not the possibility that the referendum will result in us staying in but that it might go the other way. The opinion polls show a big majority for In at present – but two or three years ago they showed a big majority for coming out. Also, as has been noted of late, the polls don’t always get it right.
There could be a differential turnout which would be hard to identify before hand. We often hear sneering from BBC pundits about those in the habit of “banging on” about Europe. This is often followed with an interview with Ken Clarke, the Conservative MP who seems as fond as talking about the subject as any of his colleagues. Yet if the general point is true that those who feel most strongly on the matter are those opposed to the EU then won’t that be reflected in those most motivated to cast their votes in the referendum? UKIP do rather better in Euro Elections than their general opinion polling suggests.
At any rate the Eurocrats appear to be taking the referendum result for granted are only interested in offering the most derisory concessions. The offering that Mr Cameron wins for us could just be words. Supposing there is some agreement that “ever closer union” doesn’t apply to us. Would that exemption be any use the next time there is some new EU directive? What about, for example, the demands in the EU for harmonisation of Corporation Tax? The French and the Germans feel it is “unfair” that our lower rate has boosted our economic growth.
The Eurocrats have scarcely hidden their cynicism in being willing to agree some nominal concessions provided the reality is not interfered with.
So it would be false to prevent us remaining in the EU as the “status quo”, as the Bernard Jenkin MP has pointed out. It would not be risk free – it would have uncertain but significant threats to our freedom, prosperity and rule of law. It is far more realistic that it would mean agreeing to a series of changes that would further reode our self government. More control of the laws with live under and the rates of tax that we pay would be lost. The demands for more of our money to be handed over to the EU would grow.
The extent to which this is understood will be crucial in the campaign. Certainly the status quo has a natural majority on most propositions we are offered.The British are a conservative people. The 1975 referendum saw many voting Yes on the basis that now we had joined we had better stay in – they might have voted differently had the referendum been before we joined.
The Out campaign need to persuade the electorate that the status quo is not on offer.